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Alumnus Jay Blunk plays key role in Blackhawks turnaround

Bowman gets Hawks jersey

Bowman accepts a Chicago Blackhawks jersey from alum (and Hawks executive) Jay Blunk.

To a sports fan, Illinois State alumnus Jay Blunk ’86 had it all. For more than 22 years he promoted the Chicago Cubs as the team’s vice president of marketing and broadcasting. He and former Cubs’ president John McDonough helped skyrocket the Cubs’ brand to a nearly international level.

Blunk ’86 shared the victory with the campus in a Homecoming visit to ISU, at which time he presented President Al Bowman with a team jersey, above.

And then McDonough announced he was switching teams. Blunk was not far behind, making the leap in 2008 from Wrigley Field to the United Center. Blunk joined the Blackhawks as senior vice president of business operations, seizing the opportunity to bring bold new marketing strategies to a team that Chicagoans had nearly forgotten.

Blunk helped the Blackhawks achieve what forbes.com called “arguably the most remarkable turnaround in the history of sports in the United States.” The success was apparent throughout the 2009-2010 campaign. Fans once again cheered as the Blackhawks captured the Central Division title for the first time since 1993. The team reached the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992, and brought the coveted Stanley Cup back to Chicago after a 49-year drought.

Reaching that unforgettable moment required effort that went far beyond players working on the ice. “We had to restaff and retool the entire organization. We had to change the culture of the organization, and we had to re-establish the Blackhawks as a mainstream entity in Chicago,” Blunk said.

Jay Blunk celebrates with the Stanley Cup

Alumnus Jay Blunk celebrates with the Stanley Cup in June 2010.

“The Blackhawks had become completely irrelevant in regard to advertisers, season ticket holders, and the professional sports landscape. We missed a couple generations of kids and the Blackhawks brand was really unknown.”

The decline occurred during the 41-year tenure of former chairman Bill Wirtz. Upon his passing in 2007, his son Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz took control and began a new era of Blackhawks hockey.

Blunk played an integral role in the team’s rebirth. Drawing from his mass communication education at Illinois State and his near quarter century with the Cubs, Blunk had an expertise in sports advertising that the Blackhawks needed. He brought myriad ideas with him to the Madhouse on Madison—as the United Center is known to Chicago hockey fans.

One of the most important strategies involved listening to fans, who asked for all games to be televised. The Blackhawks organization delivered that and more, working out a contract with Comcast SportsNet, WGN-TV and Chicago’s WGN Radio 720 to broadcast all games on television and radio.

Fans also asked for more on-ice talent on the roster. That became a reality as the team acquired some of the youngest and brightest stars in the league, such as center Jonathan Toews, right winger Patrick Kane, and defenseman Duncan Keith. They also brought in veteran free agents, including right winger Marian Hossa and defenseman Brian Campbell.

“When you see what we did to lock up our core group of young guys, that was in response to what our fans wanted. We went out and got the top-notch free agents, the finest players in the world to show we are committed to winning a championship,” said Blunk, who  got busy implementing innovative promotions never before seen in an NHL franchise.

Blunk marketed the players’ personalities through the use of the Blackhawks Heritage Series, Blackhawks TV, and the “One Goal” campaign. Fans were able to personally connect with players and the team.

“We knew we were going to have to try some things that had never been done before in professional sports. The players buy into that,” Blunk said. “I give them so much credit. We ask them to do a lot of things in the community—endorsements, signings, appearances, commercials—and these are all things they enjoy doing.”

One idea in particular that Blunk helped bring from the Cubs was a team convention at the end of each season, an idea originally hatched by team president McDonough from their days together at the Cubs. The event unites fans for games and activities that include meeting the players and talking with the coaches. Blunk also introduced cross-promotional partnerships with the Cubs and the White Sox to tap into millions of potential fans already cheering for a Chicago team.

“We needed a way to still connect with the fans during the offseason. We didn’t just want to go away for six months,” Blunk said. “When you’re at a Cubs or Sox game, we have advertisements on the message boards. We have guys do the seventh-inning stretch or throw out the first pitch. There are more than six million baseball fans in this town alone, so you are going right to the heart of sports fans in advertising your product.”

It took some big events to gain momentum as well. A turning point occurred when Blunk and McDonough, along with the National Hockey League, brought the 2009 Winter Classic to Wrigley Field. On New Year’s Day, Blunk and McDonough sat in the skybox with Mayor Richard Daley and watched as a capacity crowd attended a Chicago first.

“We wanted something that would draw mainstream sports fans and mainstream Chicagoans into the Blackhawks tent,” Blunk said. “The Cubs were terrific in the planning of it and were very cooperative in our quest to get this game there because Wrigley Field is a very special place. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting in the winter or summer.”

Although the ’Hawks fell to the Detroit Red Wings 6-4, Blunk believes the game was monumental in the Blackhawks’ surge to stardom. It put the team in front of millions of people who might have never seen a Blackhawks game before.

With mounting fan support, the team’s success grew. In the 2008-2009 season, the Blackhawks clinched fourth place in the Western Conference and made it to the conference finals for the first time since 1995. Although they lost to the Red Wings, the hype carried over to last year’s stellar season, which ended with a Stanley Cup championship over the Philadelphia Flyers.

“The intensity built little by little with each game as we went through the playoffs. By the end it was almost unbearable,” Blunk recalled.

On the road in game six he watched from his skybox as the Flyers tied the game with only four minutes remaining in regulation and sent it to overtime. Game seven seemed imminent until Kane slipped a wrist shot past Philadelphia goaltender Michael Leighton and dashed across the ice, throwing his stick and gloves in the air as mass confusion swept through the Wachovia Center.

“I turned to John and said, ‘I think it’s in.’ But we weren’t sure because the goal light never came on and the referee never signaled. NBC had a replay so we turned around in our box and when we saw the replay it was clear it went in. That’s when we all jumped up and down like little school kids. It is something I will never forget,” Blunk said.

Celebrating the Blackhawks’ first Stanley Cup championship since 1961 was no easy task. The Blackhawks organization privately planned the victory parade with Mayor Daley’s staff. More than two million fans lined Chicago streets to get a live look at professional sport’s most recognizable trophy.

“It was one of the great days in the history of Chicago sports. I don’t think I’ll ever see something that remarkable in the city of Chicago for the rest of my life,” Blunk said. “People were hanging from bridges and light poles. It was absolutely stunning and almost indescribable to hear the cheers and the roar from the crowd. It was dream-like, nothing short of incredible.”

Soon after Blunk was promoted to executive vice president. He credits his success in large part to Illinois State and his longtime association with McDonough. An internship arranged through the University with the Cubs in 1986 got him started on his career path, as the Cubs offered him a marketing position immediately after graduating. Today Blunk maintains strong ties to campus. He not only serves as an advisory board member for the School of Communication, but welcomes ISU interns and enjoys working with fellow alums on his staff.

“I’m very impressed with the communication department. It’s very progressive. They are connecting students with people in real-life situations, not only for networking purposes but also for advice. I’m so fortunate because I’m a great example of someone who got help and advice from a lot of people. So I feel an obligation to return that.”

He brought the cup back to his alma mater as part of the University’s Homecoming celebration in October. Blunk welcomed the opportunity to talk to alums who are also Blackhawks fans. He assured them that although the organization’s “One Goal” has been accomplished, the journey is far from over.

“We still feel like we have a long way to go and we need to sustain this momentum,” Blunk said.

It’s a task he is ready and eager to tackle.